MANILA — Experts on Philippine politics who have watched Rodrigo Duterte for decades say that he uses shock and fear strategically. By making casual references to real violence, he signals to his supporters that he is serious about his vision of change, and warns criminals and opponents they better get in line or face the consequences.
But when you're the president of the world's 12th most populous nation, messages such as “Hitler massacred 3 million Jews. Now, there are 3 million drug addicts. … I'd be happy to slaughter them,” travel much farther than they did when you are just the mayor of Davao, the city where Duterte got his start in the late 1980s. For better or worse, he has now achieved a degree of international fame.
Last month, Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo gave an early hint of the unintended consequences of all this attention. She asked reporters to “tone down” reports of the country's brutal drug war, according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
“Help us because you know, it’s really difficult for me to sell the Philippines when talk centers on extrajudicial killings,” Teo reportedly told journalists in a Bangkok news conference, adding she was now “always” being asked about the violence here.
It's estimated more than 7,000 people have been killed since Duterte's offensive began.
Teo's office declined interview requests and did not respond to written questions about these statements and growth in the Philippine tourism industry. But data provided by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) indicate tourism from abroad continued to rise in 2016, although at a slower pace than in the year before Duterte took office. The Philippine government website indicates tourism revenues then actually dropped in January 2017 compared to January 2016.
And the Financial Times recently reported a sharp drop in investment from the United States, traditionally the Philippines' closest partner, as a result of Duterte's harsh anti-Washington rhetoric.
In Manila, some Filipinos now complain that they have had to assure business partners or even relatives abroad that the country is safe. Indeed, the violence is often restricted to poor neighborhoods, unlikely to directly affect executives or international travelers, and the overall economy is expected to post solid growth in 2017.
But a bad reputation is hard to shake.
The WTTC said revenues from foreign visitors grew by 7.4 percent in 2016 — about the same size as gross-domestic-product growth overall — which was a decrease from 10.1 percent growth in 2015. Travel and tourism accounts for about 20 percent of the total economy, the organization said. Duterte took office in June 2016.
Continued visits in 2016 “may mean that travelers are not directly linking the violent fight against the drug trade with tourism or tourism destinations. Tourists will likely still feel safe traveling to the beaches of Boracay or surfing spots in Siargao,” said Rochelle Turner, research director at the WTTC. “Generally speaking, we advise governments or heads of states to be aware of the negative perceptions policy decisions and hard-line approaches can have on a country’s image.”